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Political dynamics in UP

Political dynamics in UP
India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, went to the voting booth on Saturday, beginning the first of its seven-phase poll process, which saw an estimated 64 per cent voter turnout. The first phase, which mostly went without incident, saw voters from 73 Assembly constituencies from the communally-charged western fringe of the state, cast their ballot in what many political observers consider to be the most hotly-contested region in Uttar Pradesh. All the major political parties/alliances in the region, the Samajwadi Party-Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Rashtriya Lok Dal, believe that they are in with a shot.

Considering that all of them fancy their chances, observers on the ground note a significant shift in voter sentiment in western UP since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when the BJP registered huge leads in Assembly segments. Back then, two factors worked in their favour. The communal riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts in 2013 consolidated the Hindu vote across caste and class lines, supporting the BJP. Mixed with this potent cocktail of religious polarisation engineered by the party and its sister organisations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's promise of good governance and economic development on the back of the previous UPA government's pitiful second term in office sealed the deal. In the end, the BJP-led alliance won 73 of the total 80 Lok Sabha seats. However, it's been two years since, and a lot has changed. The Centre's ill-advised demonetisation measure, a relative surge in Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's popularity, and the BSP matriarch, Mayawati's, new-found electoral strategy (a caste-religious arithmetic or 'Samikaran', which includes a consolidation of Muslim and Dalit votes), have changed the dynamics of these elections. The stakes are indeed very high.

In the 2014 elections, broad segments of the landed peasantry among Jats went with the BJP, leaving the RLD struggling with political irrelevance. Reports, however, indicate that this time, the RLD has once again become a viable choice. More importantly, they are angry with the BJP. Demonetisation has inflicted serious pains on the economic condition of farmers, despite a relatively good monsoon and agrarian harvest. Small traders, which form the core support base of the party, are also angry about the pain inflicted by the currency exchange measure. In 2014, a large segment of the Dalit electorate went with the BJP and away from Mayawati's BSP. In response, the state's sole female chief ministerial candidate went on a mission to regain the party's foothold with their traditional support base among Dalits besides fielding a significant number of minority candidates in a region with a high concentration of Muslim voters. Finally, as argued in these columns, the SP-Congress alliance is banking on the popularity and perceived good governance record of Akhilesh Yadav. The chief minister has sought to project an image of a dynamic leader of his generation, who wants to move beyond the traditional mould of Muslim-Yadav identity politics that has defined the old guard. He has also managed to build up perceptions among the electorate that he espouses clean politics and seeks to stem the influence of law breakers, an evil which is considered synonymous with the party. Despite the challenges that lie ahead for the BJP, Prime Minister Modi remains a popular figure, especially among young voters. With the BJP's demonetisation and development narrative seemingly not gaining much traction, it has reverted to type and gone for religious polarisation. For example, the party has talked of building the Ram temple and spoke about an "anti-Romeo campaign", which for all intents and purposes is another version of its earlier "love jihad" allegations against the Muslim community. It is not clear, whether this tactic will work in their favour. Nonetheless, the BJP seems to have worked on building their support among upper-caste and non-Yadav Other Backward Classes voters to challenge the identity politics of the SP and BSP. This combination, allied with Modi's development narrative, may take the BJP over the line. How Western UP votes, some argue, influences the way the rest of the state votes. The public sense of what happens in the electronic voting machines on 11 February could well create a wave. We will only find out if this is indeed the case on March 11.
In a recent column for an Indian daily, Gilles Verniers, a noted academic, who has extensively studied the Indian political system, made some astute observations. "Voters reward parties with a cross-sectional appeal, which deliver without discriminating on the basis of identity. As a result, the personality of the leader becomes the main element of differentiation among parties. In recent years, the core support base of the BSP — Jatavs — and the SP — Yadavs and Muslims — has eroded. But this has been more than compensated by their ability to attract votes across groups," says Verniers. During the campaign in UP, commentators increasingly observed that popularity of local candidates tends to matter less than the perceived face of the party/alliance. Akhilesh Yadav's decision to take the bull by its horns in his party seems to have captured these perceived changes. It is not to suggest that politics of identity has become irrelevant, but the ground has indeed shifted. How it all plays out on Mach 11 is anybody's guess.
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